As far as rivalries in the SEC go for the Kentucky Wildcats, the Tennessee Volunteers and the Florida Gators are at the top of the list. Having dropped an embarrassing one in Knoxville last week, the Cats travel down to Gainesville for College Gameday tonight. Tonight will be the fifth time that the Gators have hosted College Gameday, and all five have been against Kentucky. That may be great to give Florida fans some hell for us being their Super Bowl every year, but there’s just one problem with that.
The Florida Gators play their basketball in the O’Connell Center, and it is definitely a tough place to play. The students are right on top of you, which even prompted Derek Willis to say this week that it may be the toughest place he has ever played (Cough, cough, looking at you Rupp Arena for letting the silent fans sit near the court). In College Gameday games played in the swamp, the Cat are only 1-3 all-time. Kentucky’ only win was in 2015 with the 38-1 platoon squad.
This year, the Gators have been rolling as of late. Florida comes in to the game ranked as the No.24 team in the country and having beat their last three opponents by an average of over 35 points. Those three games include wins on the road over Oklahoma and LSU. Mike White is in his second season as head coach of the Gators and is sporting a 17-5 record on the year. Let’s take a look at the probable starting lineup for Florida tonight.
(As far as defensive match-ups go, I’m operating under the assumption that the Cats will have De’Aaron Fox tonight.)
#5 KeVaughn Allen, Sophomore Guard, 6’2″
KeVaughn Allen returns to the Gators for his sophomore season, after being honored on the 2016 SEC All-Freshman Team. He was the second leading scorer on an NIT-bound Florida team last year, behind Dorian Finney-Smith. Last season, he scored 15 points and had 5 rebounds in one of Florida’s two losses to UK on the year.
The sophomore guard is leading the team in scoring this season. He’s averaging 13.6 points per game to go along with 2.3 rebounds and 1.2 steals. Like a lot of players on this Florida team, Allen is a really good shooter, hitting 40.3% of his threes and 85.1% of his free throws on the season. He’s attempted at least 5 threes in 14 of the Gators’ 22 games this year.
Florida presents some defensive match up issues for the Cats due to the size of their typical starting five. The Gators will throw a front line of 6’11”, 6’8″, and 6’8″ at the Cats. Compare that to the usual starting front line of the Cats measuring at 6’10”, 6’9″, and 6’3″. Florida’s starting five rivals the size of Kansas, which we all know caused fits defensively for Kentucky. Usually, I’d say Coach Cal puts Briscoe on the scorer for the opposing team; however, with a starter at the 3 position that is 6’8″, Briscoe may have to play big as he’s done so often this season. De’Aaron Fox should probably have to guard Kasey Hill, which may leave Malik Monk to guard the Gators’ top scorer.
#1 Devin Robinson, Junior Forward, 6’8″
Devin Robinson was a five-star and top-20 prospect coming out of high school a few years ago, but this is the first season that he’s seen his stats really reflect it. Two years ago, he was an SEC All-Freshman Team member, despite only averaging 6.4 points and 2.8 rebounds on the season. Robinson has stepped up his game in his junior season though, becoming one of the main contributors on the team.
The junior is putting up 11.8 points and 5.8 rebounds, to go along with a solid shooting effort, especially for his size. Robinson is shooting 36.5% on his shots from deep, on top of just shy of 80% from the charity stripe. Last season, he had two pretty solid games against the Cats, combing for 19 points and 8 rebounds between the two match-ups.
As mentioned earlier, the size of the usual starting lineup for Florida could cause some match up issues for Kentucky. At 6’8″, Robinson may draw the eye of Isaiah Briscoe in this one, as I mentioned above. He’s a bigger offensive threat than the other 6’8″ starter, and the Cats will need De’Aaron Fox to match up with starting point guard Kasey Hill. Despite being 5 inches shorter, Briscoe does outweigh Robinson by 10 pounds, meaning he could use his muscle to make up for his height.
#0 Kasey Hill, Senior Guard, 6’1″
It seems like just recently to me that Kasey Hill was a part of this dynamite recruiting class at Florida that also included Chris Walker, giving the Gators two recruits in the top-15 of the class. Both were touted as one-and-done players that would bring Billy Donovan’s Florida team to the Final Four. Four years later, Hill is a polished senior for Mike White and Walker is playing in the D-League.
Hill is probably the most important player for the Gators this season. Between his 9.4 points, 4.9 assists, and 2.9 rebounds per game, he is the “straw that stirs the drink” to steal a quote that media members used to use about Tyler Ulis all the time. The senior isn’t much of an outside shooter, but his straight line drives could cause issues for the Cats. He’s leading the team with 1.9 steals per game, good for fourth in the SEC. Last year, Hill wasn’t a huge factor in the games against Kentucky, struggling against future NBA guards Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray.
The senior is a true point guard for Florida and will most likely be matched up with UK’s De’Aaron Fox, assuming Fox is over the sickness that kept him out of Tuesday’s game against Georgia. This will be a tough test for Fox. Experience vs inexperience, on top of the fact that Fox has been sitting out practice for most of the week. Hopefully we see a newly energized Fox tonight, rather than the one that was consistently getting beat on defense in the past few weeks.
#15 John Egbunu, Junior Center, 6’11”
John Egbunu is a true power center in every sense of the word. He’s tall and built with pure muscle, having a body type that actually compares with Bam Adebayo for the Cats. Last year, he set the Florida record for most dunks in a season, including 9 dunks on his way to a 27 point game against Kentucky. He combined for 39 points, 9 rebounds, and 2 blocks in two games versus the Cats last season.
Egbunu will be the blue-collar worker in down low for the Gators tonight, without much of a perimeter game. He’s scoring 7.7 points, pulling down a team-leading 6.7 rebounds, and blocking a team-leading 1.4 shots per game. The problem with Egbunu’s size leading to his ability to draw fouls is that he’s a rather poor free throw shooter. He’s attempted the most FT’s on the team, but is only hitting 54.5% of them.
No surprise here that Egbunu will match up with Bam Adeabyo for Kentucky. His big game against the Cats last season, could recreate itself if UK’s guards can’t stop straight line drives of the Florida perimeter players. Egbunu will clean up on the offensive glass and take easy passes for dunks if Bam is forced to help on a lot of drives throughout the game.
#23 Justin Leon, Senior Forward, 6’8″
Justin Leon is the second of two seniors in the starting lineup for Mike White, something you never see on the Kentucky side of the ball. Leon spent his first two seasons at Shawnee Community College in Illinois before transferring to Florida for his final two years. His sophomore year ended with Junior College All-American honors.
In less than 15 minutes per game last season, Leon was not much of a factor for the Gators. He combined for 0 points and 4 rebounds in two games against Kentucky last year. This season, moving into a starting role for Mike White, he’s putting up 6.5 points and 3.5 rebounds. For his size, Leon is another solid shooters for Florida, hitting 41.3% of his 3’s and 78.6% of his free throws.
The senior will most likely get matched up with the Wenyen Gabriel/Derek Willis duo on the defensive side of the ball. It will be important for the Cats to not let Leon become a big contributor in this game, as Florida has multiple different options on offense who will already be putting up big numbers. After a couple solid games offensively from Gabriel and Willis, it will be interesting to see how Leon can stop Willis’ outside shooting and Gabriel’s hustle on the boards.
With College Gameday in town for tonight’s game, look for the Rowdy Reptile student section to keep their namesake. The four freshmen for the Cats will need to attempt to keep their composure in the hostile environment and remain on top of their game. I think a key match up is potentially still sick De’Aaron Fox versus the senior leader of this Florida team in Kasey Hill. I’m not sure the Cats can rely on Malik Monk to put up 40 points to get a W if Fox is a non-factor. I think Willis and Gabriel need to really bring their A game on the offensive side to give the guards a much-need boost. And on the flip side, the guards need to pick up the defensive effort to not leave the bigs hanging out to dry on every drive and pick and roll.
Go Cats. Beat Gators.